Dr. Nadya Mason has already made her mark at the University of Illinois. An experimental condensed matter physicist who joined the faculty in 2005, she is the founding director of the Illinois Materials Research Science and Engineering Center — researching magnetic materials and deformable membranes and their practical applications, and holds the inaugrual Rosalyn Sussman Yalow Professorship in Physics, named for a pioneering scientist who was the second woman to earn a PhD in Physics at U of I. A list of her honors might just consume this entire article. You can read more about them here.
Now, Mason will be the first woman, and woman of color, to lead Beckman Institute, overseeing an enormous and influential interdisciplinary research facility. I had the great fortune to steal a few moments of her time, before she officially takes the reins on September 1st.
Smile Politely: You were an elite level gymnast when you were a kid. Do you mind talking about that experience?
Dr. Nadya Mason: It was probably the most formative thing in my childhood. I started when I was seven, just because I was a kid who taught herself how to do flips and pullovers…it was what my body wanted to do. I really liked to master things, so at that stage it was “can you make yourself do this, can you focus to do this,” and I rose pretty rapidly. You go from classes twice a week, to three days a week, to four days a week, to five days a week…by the time I was a sophomore in high school I was going to the gym 35 hours a week, and going to school 30 hours a week. I really loved it for many years. The last few years I didn’t love it so much. The goal was to make the Olympics and I ended up not making it. It was a big disappointment. But I think I always knew that I was interested in more than the gym – in academics and in exploring the world in new ways – so I never had an ambition to do it in college, or continue with the sport. So when I quit after my sophomore year I just didn’t engage with it again.
I got a job, I learned to cook, I ran track and cross country and did all of these other things.
SP: What sparked your interest in science, and in physics specifically?
Mason: I just gravitated towards it. Neither of my parents were scientists. It wasn’t a career that I grew up with. When I got to grad school I realized that most of the people in grad school with me had parents who were scientists, and it was actually really unusual to not have that background and go into the field. I really like math a lot…I would do math word games on my own, for fun. After 11th grade I had the opportunity to work in a chemistry lab at Rice University. I loved working with my hands, and I loved the fact that they got to go in all day and just do experiments. I decided I definitely wanted to do something like this with my life. I like thinking about how the world works from a fundamental point of view – how do you go from this small scale structure with simple rules to complex structures that govern our lives? That was how I knew that physics was for me. It really crystallized in college after taking some classes my freshman year.
SP: What brought you to the University of Illinois?
Mason: I do experimental condensed matter physics, which means it the physics of “stuff”. Our department here is the top ranked condensed matter physics department, and so to get an offer from the top ranked department is a really big deal. But also, when I interviewed here, it was one of the few places that felt like a real community of scientists and friends. I still feel it 17 years later. Even during my interview, we were plotting collaborations that we’d have. It just felt like a fun place, and [Champaign-Urbana] seemed like a great place to raise kids.
SP: You are the founding director of the Illinois Materials Research Center. Can you tell me about the focus of the work that is done there?
Mason: It’s NSF (National Science Foundation) funded, and really the premier center for the division of materials research in the NSF. What sets this center apart is that it’s pretty large, and usually involves 20-25 faculty, and it’s intrinsically interdisciplinary. We have faculty from eight different departments: bioengineering, chemical engineering, material science, electrical and computer engineering, chemical and biomolecular engineering, mechanical science and engineering, chemistry, physics…and they are brought together to solve problems that couldn’t be solved within one discipline, and couldn’t be solved without a center approach. It encourages you to think big, to think in terms of how you can bring all of your strengths together. It makes for really exciting, cutting edge research. For me, collaborative research is just more fun.
The other really great thing about the center is that it has a huge educational and outreach component, and a huge component of building up facilities for the whole materials community and collaborating with national labs and international visitors. We go into the schools, we do the Engineering Open House, we bring our undergraduates to Argon Labs to tour. I think of science as more than just being in a lab all of the time. It’s for everyone — creating a community where we help educate broad swaths of people, and use our research to engage any way that we can, with everyone having an opportunity to bring their strengths. It’s been super exciting to lead and to foster that sort of community.
SP: How do you feel about leaving that in the hands of others now…is it bittersweet?
Mason: Giving it up is bittersweet. I’ve been doing it for more that six years, and founding director means I personally wrote a lot of the grant. But I think these are really good leadership opportunities, and I think it’s great for others to have a chance to lead and to have fresh eyes on it. We’ve been doing things with my vision, and I think it’s really good to get new direction. Also, I think of Beckman as a much bigger version of what I’ve been doing.
SP: It seems like the nature of work you’ve been doing really seamlessly fits with what’s happening at Beckman.
Mason: That [leading the IMRC] is what gave me the taste for it that I didn’t know I had. If you’d asked me six years ago if I would want to do this, the answer would be “I don’t know…is it fun? What does that even mean?” But now I can do all of these things but have so much more impact in a place like this, and have so many more opportunities.
SP: With the work that you’ve done in the community, and in the schools, are you encouraged by what you’re seeing, with young girls, and specifically Black and Brown girls, being interested in STEM, and having opportunities to pursue it?
Mason: Every time we go into the community, or we have people come to us, I’m incredibly encouraged. People say it changes the way that they think, or their plans for life. I give a TED Talk about increasing scientific curiosity, and it’s based on an experience at Franklin Middle School, where we gave these kids Magnadoodles to take apart. We talked about how to experiment with them. These girls, as they were leaving, said “We’re going to go home and do more experiments!” and they were super excited. For me that’s inspiring.
So there are individual stories, but then there are the overall numbers. They’re terrible. It’s frustrating. I thought that there was a whole generation with me. When I was in grad school I thought “There’s one of me at every university. That means there are 100 Black women that would go on in this field.” Then I started going to conferences, and they weren’t there. I honestly thought they were. How could they not be? I was disappointed and upset to realize the numbers haven’t changed that much.
Something needs to be changed. I wish I knew what that magic bullet was. I try to think locally — getting people involved in research and getting families engaged. Even things on a broader scale, like mentoring. Let’s do the things that we know make a difference, then keep plugging away until we find that bigger answer.
SP: What do you envision for the future of Beckman?
Mason: Beckman is in great shape. Jeff [Moore] has done a really great job. He’s a great scientist and a caring person, and he’s worked really hard to make sure Beckman is a good place to work. I feel like I’m in a really great place to build on what he’s done already.
Research-wise, you have to keep pushing toward the cutting edge, toward big centers, toward more people working together on big problems. If you don’t keep pushing then you’re falling behind. We’re always thinking of the next steps…what’s happening with the cancer institute, how do we collaborate with Carle, what’s happening with the CHIPS initiative, where are places we can make an impact? Number two is pushing on that sense of community. It’s especially important after COVID, to make sure that students and post-docs feel like their voices are heard, and that they are in a place where they can be their best selves and do their best work.
Also making sure we’re more open to the external community. We’re north facing, and yet we have no north entrance. I’d like to make [Beckman] more welcoming to people in those communities, to people coming back and forth from Carle…to make this a place where people will stop, go to the cafe, and feel like the research here has an impact on their lives, making sure we’re more visible locally, nationally, internationally…as visible as we can be.
Top photo from Grainger College of Engineering Physics website.